Looking at the list of this year’s Oscar nominees, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for you to think Hollywood has always been a lily-white scene, peppered occasionally with people of color and women, but dominated–especially at the top of the academy elite–by folks who don’t really resemble the reality of America–or the world, for that matter–in 2015. But eighty years ago, a different hue unexpectedly splashed across the silver screen: a young woman led a singular creative streak stretching from the streets of San Francisco to the Battle of Shanghai, and became one of the few women of color of her time to make a name for herself in the industry behind the camera.
Esther Eng, an American-born woman of Chinese descent, maverick “directress”, transnational entrepreneur and open lesbian, broke into the business at 20 in 1935, when she set out to co-produce her first film. The daughter of a prominent businessman from Guangdong, she sought to carve out a niche for Chinese actors in Hollywood by investing in film production. Her first film, Heartaches, was released as a groundbreaking Hollywood picture in 1936 and later in Hong Kong, billed as the “first Cantonese Singing-Talking Picture made in Hollywood.”
Her plunge into filmmaking stemmed from a childhood steeped in her passion for the performing arts, as a movie fan and lover of Chinese opera. For decades, San Francisco had hosted some of the world’s most exciting Chinese theater. The city’s houses could afford the best actors in all China. They had seen the rapid, inspirational rise of some professional, independent women – actresses, so recently liberated from a prolonged ban from the Chinese stage. When San Francisco’s Mandarin Theater opened in 1924 (see it in Orson Welles’ 1947 film, The Lady From Shanghai), its leading star was a woman, Cheung Sook Kun, described as the highest-paid Chinese thespian after Mei Lanfang. Esther’s best friend (gossip said lover) was Wai Kim-fong, another star from the Mandarin prior to headlining three “Esther Eng films”, including Heartache.
A preserved script of this film shows the patriotic and feminist concerns evident in her feature films as director. It reads as an effective weepie. Its central figure (Wai) is a Chinese opera star who sacrifices her love for a young Chinese-American pilot (Beal Wong) for the benefit of their motherland (China). She finally dies of heartbreak in his arms.
After Heartaches, Eng moved to Hong Kong’s emerging film scene with National Heroine, another picture embodying a fierce patriotic message designed to stir national pride in the midst of the Sino-Japanese war. She returned to the US to create Golden Gate Girls, which premiered in 1941 and debuted a very young Bruce Lee. At a time when many women in Hollywood were known as little more than a pretty face, Eng was an unabashedly ambitious filmmaker and shattered stereotypes with grace. She interspersed her film time with a thriving restaurant business. According to the documentary on Eng’s career, her eponymous nightspot was known to host the likes of Marlon Brando and Tennssee Williams.
Though much of her filmography has been buried by history, she left an indelible mark on both Hollywood and Hong Kong, and in a way, captured the spirit of a time when possibilities for modern China were breaking wide open and people like Eng felt relatively unencumbered by the constraints of race, globalization and militarism that later overtook postwar popular cultures. Perhaps she prefigured the era we now find ourselves in: a world where national boundaries are blurring, where artists let cultures clash and swirl in a vivid montage, and where different stories can be spliced to create multifaceted narratives, which not only speak to us, but help redefine us. The business isn’t as square as it often appears on the surface: Sometimes history can challenge our imagination.
Learn more about Golden Gate Girls at Blue Queen Cultural Communication.